AS THE SAYING GOES, laughter is the best medicine. If that’s the case, the Santa Fe Playhouse has a tried-and-true remedy in its Fiesta Melodrama, one of six productions celebrating the theater’s centennial season.
Founded in 1918, and finally incorporated in 1922 by writer and activist Mary Austin, a close friend of Mabel Dodge Luhan, the Playhouse has been known by several names, including the Santa Fe Little Theater and the Santa Fe Community Theater. It presented performances in spaces from improvised sets on the Plaza to outdoor stages at the rodeo grounds before settling into its home in a rose-toned adobe building on DeVargas Street in 1964.
The tradition of the annual melodrama has remained constant. Premiering in the 1919 season, the farce has become a staple of the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe celebrations. Drawing inspiration from current events, news, politics, and society, the melodrama skewers Santa Fe’s politicians, public figures, artists, and traditions by portraying them as quintessential melodrama characters like the villain, the hero, and the heroine.
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For the centennial production, the play reflects on its own history by blending scripts from the past 60 years. “We’ve got this sort of fossilized landscape we can look back on,” says Eliot Fisher, who is codirecting with Andy Primm. “The archive the Playhouse has is just incredible.”
Like any therapeutic deep dive, the satirical production reveals a host of unresolved issues and fixations. “What you see in the script is the complexity that exists in Santa Fe today,” says Fisher. “It’s dealing with key issues like land, identity, culture, and power.”
Many of those early plays were well ahead of their time, Fisher notes. “You can see the writers of these scripts kind of foreseeing some of the challenges we are facing today,” he says. “Water and land are main concerns.”
But even the weightiest of subjects go down with a chuckle in the melodrama. “The show is just silly,” says Fisher. “Its purpose is to make us laugh at ourselves.”
Melodrama also asks audience members to boo, clap, laugh, heckle, and cheer—to encourage the characters and their actions. “That process is supremely like being a citizen in a democracy,” says Fisher. “Together, we are imagining what our community is.”
Setting the Stage
The centennial season at the Santa Fe Playhouse concludes with two final productions.
Written by Katori Hall, The Mountaintop takes place in the Lorraine Motel on the 1968 night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. A piece of magical realism, it explores racism, justice, mythmaking, and what it means to be human. September 22–October 16.
Aimed toward younger audiences, A Year with Frog and Toad follows two best friends through four seasons. Based on the beloved books by Arnold Lobel, it features choreography by Patrick MacDonald and is directed by Santa Fe Playhouse’s executive director, Colin Hovde, and artistic director, Robyn Rikoon. December 1–25.